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What you need to know about Switzerland's Unspunnen, the world's largest traditional festival

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What you need to know about Switzerland's Unspunnen, the world's largest traditional festival
Photo: Unspunnen festival
11:53 CEST+02:00
This celebration of Swiss rural culture will take over Interlaken from August 26th to September 3rd.
Unspunnen... I'm thinking wool, spinning, weaving. Am I close?
 
No. The event's full title is the Swiss Wrestling, National Costume and Alpine Herdsmen's Festival, but it's known as Unspunnen because that's the name of the meadow where the first festival took place.
 
Ah, so we're talking classic Swiss rural pastimes?
 
Exactly. It's Switzerland's biggest and most prestigious rural festival, bringing together Alphorn players, flag throwers, Swiss wrestlers, choral singers, stone throwers, Hornussen competitors and herdsmen and women in traditional costumes. In short, it's every Swiss rural tradition you can think of packed into one nine-day festival. And seeing as it's only held once every decade or so – the last was in 2006 – it's quite a big deal. This is only the tenth edition since the festival was founded over 200 years ago.
 
Photo: Unspunnen festival
 
So why was it founded?
 
The first Unspunnen was held way back in 1805, in a period of political turmoil in Switzerland, which had been ruled by the French from 1798 to 1803. Tensions between the cities and rural communities in the Bern area led four Bern residents to found a folk festival to try and foster good relations between the city dwellers and country folk.
 
Did it work? 
 
Partly. The first festival and a second one three years later were extremely popular (5,000 people attended in 1808) and sparked a tourism boom in the area. However they failed to ease political tensions. The third festival wasn't held for another century, and it wasn't until 1946 that it became a more regular thing. From the 1981 festival onwards, Unspunnen became a major national event and attracted tons of media coverage. It's now considered the world's largest traditional gathering, attracting 150,000 spectators.
 
 
So what's new this time?
 
For the first time in the festival's history it will be held for nine days encompassing two weekends. Each day is dedicated to a particular rural sport, such as alpine wrestling (Schwingen), alphorn playing, target shooting and Hornussen (a 17th century cross between cricket and golf). But what's most associated with the Unspunnen is stone throwing. 
 
Photo: Unspunnen festival
 
Any old stone?
 
No, since you ask. The Unspunnen stone is a hefty 83.5kg, so throwing it any distance at all is quite a feat. The record is currently held by Markus Maire from the village of Plaffeien, who threw it an epic 3.89m. The stone has become a symbol of the festival and is considered a Swiss cultural treasure. It's just a shame no one actually knows where it is.
 
How come?
 
The Unspunnen stone has quite a history – the original 1805 stone disappeared after the first festival, and a new one was made for the following event in 1808. That was stolen by Jura separatists from a museum in Interlaken in 1984, but then mysteriously reappeared in 2000. Then five years later it was stolen again from a hotel in Interlaken where it was being displayed ahead of that year's festival (which was later postponed a year due to flooding). A substitute of the same weight is now used instead.
 
Photo: Unspunnen festival
 
Is it likely to mysteriously reappear again?
 
Who knows. The organizers say whoever took it is assured a warm welcome in Interlaken. “If you happen to drop by with the stone before the event starts, the president of the organizing committee will open a bottle of good wine so that you can both toast to a successful festival,” they said last year.
 
Lovely. I'd like to drop by myself – how do I do that? 
 
All ticketing and travel information is available on the festival's website, unspunnenfest.ch
 
Photo: Unspunnen festival

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